May 28, 2015


One of the more common live-action "dramas" (dorama) genres on Japanese television is the "slice-of-life" melodrama, packaged in a nine to twelve episode (or so) standalone series.

These are little teleplays about "normal" people dealing with a big emotional crisis. The adjective "big" in this context is purely relative, as nobody a stone's throw away would be aware that anything was amiss (aside from the radioactive waves of angst).

All deeply felt, of course. Very "true to life." Very "heartfelt." Very "meaningful." Very "dramatic." But, I'm afraid, not very entertaining. Put another way, contemporary literary fiction is alive and well on Japanese television (that's not a compliment).

It's known in the Japanese entertainment industry as the "trendy drama" (as opposed to "traditional" episodic genre television: crime, medical, law, and samurai dramas. The "trendy drama" is

a style of drama writing that originated in Japan during the late 1980's [that] focused on contemporary issues young Japanese were faced with everyday, such as love, family problems, and other social issues.

The target audience for the "trendy" drama has aged with the rest of the population, evolving a variety of sub-genres: the big business reorg; the big vote facing the small town council; the big divorce (again, "big" meaning not really).

I confess to harboring biases, as I generally avoid serials (as opposed to one-story-at-a-time series). The abbreviated format of anime and Asadora make them more watchable. A little nudging into the more traditional genre categories can help too.

Second To Last Love, for example, turns into a rom-com about two forty-to-fifty somethings who start out in May/September romances and end up with each other. I'm Mita, Your Housekeeper pushes all the standard cliches over the top and mutates into suburban horror.

I'm Home is a quiet psychological thriller about a businessman who's nearly killed in a gas explosion and wakes up having forgotten the last several years of his life. As he struggles to recover his memory, he discovers that he used to be a real jerk.

Importantly, I'm Mita, Your Housekeeper and I'm Home don't simply take a single story and chop it into a dozen segments; each episode comes to a resolution in a stair-step fashion.

Alas, the "trendy" treatment wrecks most good genre stories. Start with a murder mystery with enough plot to last maybe ninety minutes and stretch out to twelve hours? Boring doesn't begin to describe the experience. I stopped watching 24 after the first season too.

Or take Flowers for Algernon (it's gone from science fiction to literary fiction in fifty years) and turn what was originally a short story into ten fifty-minute episodes. Now you can stay bummed out for almost three months!

This approach is defended as "realistic." Which is also not a compliment. When it comes to narrative fiction, T.S. Eliot was right about "too much reality" being too much to bear. The real world is what I live in every day; calling it "fiction" doesn't turn it into entertainment.

The big attraction for the studios is that dorama are inexpensive to produce. Sets are simple, locations are everywhere, and the wardrobe could easily be whatever the actors wore to work. Thanks to digital video, most of the cinematography can be done in-camera.

(The technology really is a game-changer. A recent PBS documentary on the Father Brown series emphasized several times how "low budget" it is, implying low-six figures, but you'd never know from looking at it.)

I can see an artistic precedence in understated post-war Yasujiro Ozu films like The End of Summer and An Autumn Afternoon. Except that Ozu really does do slice-of-life, without a pile of concocted conflict plopped into the center of the script.

Ozu also spares us the buckets of angst, the inevitable big realization and the inevitable big resolve (again, "big" being relative). Watching Ozu, I'm often reminded of Dragnet, and how Jack Webb had actors read off cue cards or a teleprompter.

To save rehearsal time. And also to keep actors from "acting." Okay, that's a little extreme, but I get where Webb is coming from. The problem is obvious in bad dubs: too much acting. Too much emoting. Too much drama. Just too much.

Too much "reality" kills verisimilitude far faster than undisguised fantasy. Raymond Chandler had the right solution: "When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand."

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
5/28/2015 10:47 AM   
I just posted about how supposedly "realistic" deaths in fiction (killing off characters) are usually writing cop-outs! Along the same lines, fiction that claims to be "realistic" is often more bizarrely unrealistic than pure fantasy. I love Law & Order but Columbo is more true to the human condition.